This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, who blogs at pangolinblues.wordpress.com
In my screening programme Nobody Ordered Wolves, I am always seeking startling work that will match the shock of entering the unusual spaces I seek out for the events. When I happened upon Kilburn’s Tin Tabernacle – an amazing tin church built in the Victorian period, its insides later converted by sea cadets to surreally resemble a ship’s – I knew I needed a film that would produce the same “shock of the old”. As luck would have it, there remained a work about the sea that held the same surprise that entering a ship run aground in North London did for me. The film is Finis Terrae and it was produced by neglected master director Jean Epstein.
As a child, Jean Epstein (1897–1953) was, “afraid to go to the cinema”:
I had heard perfectly reasonable adults speak strongly about horrific details of the conflagration at the charity bazaar where, it seemed, a bishop was burned alive. In my premature logic, I told myself that if a bishop can die at the cinema, all the more reasonable that I would, since I was surely not so well protected by the will of God; I would cry and stamp my feet and enter into mad crises of despair when I would see my parents prepare to go to the cinema: I was never sure they’d return alive.
This piece of magical thinking maps out Epstein’s later career in the cinema. Filmmaking was a matter of mortal stakes for the Polish-French director, writer and poet, and was carried out with an evangelical, religious fervour. Despite crowning achievements and innovations in a variety of fields – encompassing silent and sound work, commercial biopics and avant-garde shorts, high cinema theory and thoroughgoing technical experimentation – Epstein’s ability to capture the life of the sea is unparalleled.
Whatever childhood qualms he held were brushed aside after making the acquaintance of the Lumière Brothers themselves. Abandoning his studies as a doctor, Epstein jumped at the chance to co-direct a film biography of Louis Pasteur. He then produced a string of studio works in the 1920s, before founding his own film company where he directed some startling narrative works, from melodrama (Coeur Fidele, 1923) to horror (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928). In parallel, Epstein was bravely and idiosyncratically theorising the world of the cinema. Although the subjects in his writings are diverse (even choosing from the sadly limited number available in translation), his consuming passion is how to make the focus of cinema what he terms “photogénie”. While even Epstein himself admitted “you fall flat on your face trying to define photogénie”, at its core, it is the specific extra quality that objects take on when they are filmed, and the new light that this casts on them. Epstein describes this process in typically lyrical fashion:
One of cinema’s greatest power is its animism. On screen there is no still life. Objects have attitudes. Trees gesture. Mountains … signify. Each element of staging becomes a character.
For Epstein, this idea held equal weight in theory and practice: his version of The Fall of the House of Usher focuses on the desperate, haunted attempt by Roderick Usher to capture the image of his sister in a portrait that he is obsessively paints of her. This provides a ripe metaphor for Epstein’s own artistic battle, as he tries to use the aesthetic means of film to reflect the world back to the viewer. Epstein was known for his use of many formal techniques (superimpositions, slow-motion, extreme close up) but his aim was never to create an alienating surrealism, but instead cast a cinematic spell that would reveal an object as it truly is.
Yet, after producing … Usher, his most formally lavish film, he separated himself from the Paris cinema milieu and departed for remotest Brittany.
I had the feeling that it was impossible to further capture the real using the unreal. Finis Terrae was my attempt to get past this dead end.
Although Epstein had long been fascinated by the sea, it was a grotesque fascination: half disgust and half attraction. Citing Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Imp of the Perverse, he described his consuming fear of the ocean, though a fear ‘that obliges us to do what we are afraid to do.’ Epstein made five films about the sea across two decades, starting with Finis Terrae in 1929. All but one is set on the Breton coast; like the rhythms of the tide that he placed so centrally in these films, his mind and travel plans kept pulling him back to the region.
In Finis Terrae, the untouched quality of the Breton coastline allowed him to showcase seemingly simple elements to spectacular degree: the folding of a pair of arms, the fluttering of ribbons in a girl’s hair and, most persistently, the moods of the sea against the unchanging rocks. The space of Brittany gave him licence to completely renew his aesthetics, finding in the coastline the kind of natural photogénie that he had struggle to produce through artificial means in his earlier work:
Leaving the Ouessant archipelago, I felt I was taking with me not a film, but a fact and once this fact had been transported to Paris, something of the material and spiritual reality of the island life would henceforth be missing. An occult business.
Epstein believed that cinema held the unique power to show us the fundamental objective truth that is usually shattered by subjectivity; he delighted in the French term for a camera lens, le objectif. Appropriately then, Finis Terrae’s plot was “torn from the headlines”, though markedly more sedate headlines than the cinema usually draws on. In the film, a seaweed gatherer on a remote coastal island accidentally cuts himself on a bottle, and the wound quickly becomes infected. Initially he is derided by the other seamen for his malingering, but soon they realise the mortal stakes and attempt the difficult sea crossing to the mainland.
As Epstein hoped, his mode of framing life in Ouessant acts as an “eye-freshener”: one comes away from the film brimming with cinema’s potential. Although Epstein exposes much that is exotic and novel in his docudrama, the film never patronises the Breton lifestyle. One thinks of Murnau and Flaherty’s Tabu: A Tale of the South Seas (1931), which, despite its beauty and “documentary” approach, has an outsider’s touch throughout, seeking to fillet the lives of the islanders for their “otherness”. Whether or not one can claim objectivity, Epstein was not simply another Paris intellectual seeking authenticity in the “naïve” life of the natives. Brittany represents a space of the uncanny for Epstein, where the smallest mistake can have life-threatening consequences:
In this place and people is resumed the mystery of men dedicated to land that is but rock, to sea that is but foam, to a hard and perilous trade suffering a meagre self-sufficiency.
Instead of “the other”, Epstein shows life in Brittany as a legitimate alternative to the alienation of modern life. He also had other reasons for seeking alternate lifestyles: as was uncovered when his full archives were made available, Epstein was gay and, under a pseudonym had written a pioneering treatise on Masculine Homosexual Ethics. With this information, the companionship between the younger seaweed gatherers takes on a new cast. Brittany at that time was heavily dominated by the Catholic church, but fishermen – unable to attend mass on a regular basis – were relatively exempt from their sway. In the male-only world of the archipelagos, a beautiful and separate world could flourish. The narrative trajectory of Finis Terrae can easily be read as a parable of two male lovers who come to realise their value to each other.
Epstein’s other works of the sea are equally compelling, but it is with this first work that he made his definitive statement about the power of the ocean. Coastal life is constantly in flux; for a filmmaker who believed that “still life is an abominable on screen … a sin against the very nature of cinema”, it allowed him the perfect location to capture the ecstatic essence of film.
This article is heavily indebted to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam University Press), which is available as a Creative Commons licenced free e-book here. Many thanks also to Bathysphere Productions for generously sharing a viewing copy of James June Schneider’s beautiful documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which will be included in the upcoming (and much needed) box set of Jean Epstein’s works from Potemkine, due to be released in May 2014 to coincide with a retrospective of his works at the Cinemateque Française.
By Duncan Carson